Inbox secrets revealed!

My esteemed colleague and friend Laura Villevieille published a really cool discovery she made:

A couple of trail-blazing ISPs have made this data available to senders! has recently rolled out a new postmaster site that includes several of these dream metrics. QQ has also made some of this data available.

Written by Laura Villevieille, Email Delivery Manager, EMM, IBM FR.

Laura Atkins of “Word to the Wise” recently wrote a fine article detailing the problem we have as senders:  we only ever have access to engagement data through proxy measurements like “open” and “click-through” rates.

There are other metrics that senders would love to see and use to help measure engagement, for example:  How many people actually read a message? Or deleted a message without reading it? Or how long a user kept an email open on their screen?  All of these metrics would be fantastic data for marketers, and would help us diagnose our own deliverability issues without opening trouble tickets with the ISPs that  own the architecture that records this data; sharing it with us would require they invest in development that pretty much only benefits senders, and has the additional problem of possibly even giving away part of their filtering “secret sauce”.

Surprisingly, though, a couple of trail-blazing ISPs have made this data available to senders! has recently rolled out a new postmaster site that includes several of these dream metrics.  QQ has also made some of this data available., operator of the largest Russian webmail provider and social networking sites, has just released a new postmaster website and feedback loop.  The verification process is a bit more involved than other feedback loop programs, but the access it provides is well worth the effort!

The system allows us to see key deliverability metrics like “number of complaints” and percent delivered/blocked/spamfoldered”, and also provides several key engagement metrics:  “number of messages read”, “number of messages deleted after being read” and “number of messages deleted unread”.  All of this information is visible per sending domain by day, week or month and in a build-your-own chart allowing you to compare any of the metrics by week, month or year.  How cool is that?!

Tencent QQ

As Jerome Gays from Signal Spam recently shared with us, China’s largest ISP “Tencent QQ” has also made some of these metrics available. The QQ system allows you to register as the administrator for your sending domains and IPs.  Once registered, reports will show “messages sent”, “messages received in the inbox”, “messages filtered”, “read rate “and “complaint rate” (shown in that order in the image below).   Like Hotmail’s SNDS reports, these metrics are available by IP by day.

Unfortunately, there is no English version of the QQ system, but having access to the ISP’s data is nevertheless really valuable.

With ISP data like this from QQ and, we are able to see new pieces of the deliverability puzzle that were previously never available, and we are finally able to answer some long-standing burning questions:

  • How many people opened the message but didn’t download images?
  • What was the genuine complaint rate?
  • What was the inbox/filtered rate, really?
    • How does that number differ from what our seed tests show?
  • How many people deleted the message without reading it?
    • What does this data indicate about the mailing’s subject lines, frequency, timing and saturation?
    • What does it imply about the mail stream itself (daily deal/newsletter/offers/etc.)?

As deliverability experts, we can use this information to accurately diagnose deliverability problems without engaging the ISP’s Postmaster teams.  It gives us insight into the same complaint and engagement metrics that filters use.  This added visibility can and should also be used to identify issues and help to monitor and stop outbound abuse on our networks.

As senders and marketers, this is really exciting data that gives us a new ability to gauge the real performance of our email campaigns, draw new insights about the relevance and reception of campaigns, and use that information to improve our sending practices thereby improving our inbox placement and ROI.  That’s incredibly valuable information, and we can only hope other ISPs may follow the trail being blazed here. Thank you, and QQ!

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Bumpy Ride!


A few years ago, in a different life, I was privileged to work with the folks that first developed reputation engines for spam filtering. I spent 2 years before we rolled it out banging on the drum, warning marketers that Reputation Was Coming And It Would Change Everything. When it did finally arrive, it did change everything, very fast, and most email marketers were left scrambling to adapt or have their email programs fail. For a while, Reputation was enough to stem the tide, but predictably enough, spam evolved and so the spam-fighting systems needed to evolve as well. Enter stage left: Engagement, or how ISPs measure their customer’s interest in the email they get. They measure it any number of ways, some of which are known -including opens, clicks, if mail is moved to or out of the spam folder, if a mailbox is logged into in X amount of time, etc. Of course, there is also the Secret Sauce – ISPs certainly do not reveal more than a fraction of how they do what they do.

Ken Magill wrote an excellent article about the state of email marketing at the moment. He points out that ISPs that do not control their email interfaces the way AOL, Hotmail, Gmail and Yahoo do, are increasingly turning to blocklist and filter vendors such as Spamhaus and Cloudmark to help control their incoming spam problem, and as Laura Atkins writes, Spamhaus has become increasingly effective in the last year. They and other filter vendors are able to do stuff with their data that wasn’t even imaginable when the reputation engines first came out, allowing for better insight into the email streams, and a decreased ability for bad and marginal mailers to fly under the radar. Better tools mean faster work, which leaves time to pay attention to new classes of email, including ESP marketing mail. Along with this development, ISPs are looking increasingly at content and engagement…and if your content and engagement levels are not acceptable to them, your carefully nurtured brand that once had a good reputation will suddenly lose it and your mail will start getting spamfoldered or blocked outright. Getting that good reputation back is a non-trivial task, as some marketers who ignored best practices over the holiday season are now finding out the hard way.

Marketing mail is increasing steadily in volume, for lots of reasons – maybe the recession is causing people to decide that “best practices” are optional and only matter when the economy is not tanking? If so, they are wrong! There are also a lot of companies getting into email marketing for the first time, who mean well but do not know what the best practices are and so they blunder along until something bad happens that encourages them to find out!

A direct side effect of these things is subscriber fatigue. People are just heartily sick of getting so much email and instead of taking less brutal actions such as choosing to only get mail once a week instead of once a day – assuming that the email marketer that has upset them even offers such an option! – they just unsubscribe. And they don’t look back. There’s an article on Reddit about one guy’s experience with an online petition site which neatly underscores what I just said. If there’s such a thing as “spam rage”, I think it’s in full bloom now. People are just overwhelmed by the amount of mail in their inboxes, and are resorting to slash-and-burn methods to make it stop.

According to Magill’s article, spam complaints are on the rise, ISP filtering is getting tighter, relying on being a big household brand to get by is becoming fruitless, and ISPs are becoming much less responsive to requests for assistance or remediation. Gmail does not offer any avenues of appeal whatsoever, for example.

List hygiene, clean data acquisition practices and analytics are becoming ever more important. Just removing bounces and complainants is not enough to protect your program from engagement based filtering. My observations from where I am sitting these days agree with Magill, as do many of the industry experts that blog. I’ve had some conversations with the folks that pull the triggers at the ISPs and blocklists and they agree, too. This is a dicey environment, it always has been and it’s just getting more so.

Scary business! So what can you do?

There are a lot of things that you can do to help maximize your email marketing program’s effectiveness, beyond using an opt-in program, removing invalid addresses and spam complaints immediately.

Putting “best practice theory” into “best practice reality” is made much easier when you have the right tools to hand. Tools within IBM’s Enterprise Marketing Management suite (EMM, comprising Unica Campaign, and eMessage) enable the marketing analyst to add customer identifiers to a global suppression list, to ensure that customers who shouldn’t be contacted, never are. Not even by accident. In addition, analysts can build re-usable lists of customers, known as “strategic segments”, that can be used across marketing campaigns to save time in rebuilding campaign selection logic.

Powerful segmentation functionality is nothing without the power to access data from disparate databases and files in the first place. The reason IBM EMM software is so successful is that your data can stay in situ in your Marketing Data Mart or Data Warehouse, rather than being loaded into another tool before you can work with it. IBM eMessage can draw your data directly from your existing databases.

These features allow the user to create segments that represent individual ISPs and manage their reputation at an ISP level, as well as allowing you to offer products and services to the right selection of people. This helps create positive reactions in your recipients. Careful segmentation is critical for engagement – if you’re a 15 year old girl, you don’t want email about health concerns affecting older men, do you? How many of you folks reading this have gotten mail that is completely irrelevant to you, even offensively so? What is your reaction? At least an eye-roll, and depending on your mood, anything from the eye-roll, up to and including deciding you don’t want mail from that company anymore – you get enough of it from everywhere anyway!

If the worst happens and your reputation takes a dive, then segmentation by ISP can also be a useful tool in damage control – for example, if you’re having trouble with Gmail, you can separate out Gmail customers from the rest of your mailable universe and treat them differently until your reputation with that ISP improves. Ideally, you won’t ever need to do this because you are putting best practices in effect across all ISPs you send to.

It was accepted a long time ago that personalization is a good thing. With IBM EMM eMessage, we now commonly see customers’ PII driving conditional content. If you are willing to go to these lengths to ensure that the customer gets the right message, then why not segment and target carefully? This would allow you to make sure that not only are you maintaining your reputation, but also maximizing your reach. It is also absolutely crucial to your program’s success that you respect your customers by not over-mailing them, keeping content relevant to their desires, and honoring their unsubscribe requests immediately. Failing to respect your customer base drives subscriber fatigue and contributes heavily to decreased IP reputation and inbox placement.

Very often, we find that marketing departments are at best skeptical. and at worst appalled at the suggestion that they remove non-responsive customers from their mailing lists in order to improve their reputation. Yes, at first it seems counter-intuitive…but isn’t this what marketers are supposed to be good at? Segmenting, sampling and splitting?

IBM EMM has a team of people at hand that have broad-ranging and long standing experience in the email marketing world; these folks are available to give expert advice on many of the problems that the evolving anti-spam measures create for marketers.

Old fashioned email marketing programs are becoming increasingly ineffective. We are happy to be able to provide our customers with the tools and advice needed to succeed in navigating the more stringent rules of the new email world.

(This blog post written in collaboration with IBM EMM’s Gordon Patchett, Technical Account Manager extraordinaire. Many thanks for your time, Gordon!)

Do they or don’t they? Will they or won’t they?

Ah, Christmas time! and the eternal question arises again: Do ISPs deliberately throttle senders over the holidays?

I recently got an email asking me if I thought ISPs tighten the rules during the holidays to be more strict on senders. It’s a question I got quite often when I was at AOL, also.

So…do they??

In my opinion the answer is no, they don’t! There are a many reasons for this thought, but it all boils down to the fact that the holidays are a nightmare for ISP staff, and the last thing I can imagine them doing is making their workload higher on purpose. Consider that:

  • Malware infections jump during this season which means that help-center tickets increase dramatically as does inbound mail volume due to more computers being added to bot-nets.
  • Marketing mail volumes go up in response to the retail frenzy which means that mail volume increases exponentially.
  • All the additional strain on the inbound relays and spam-processing servers means things break more, which means that admins get no time to sleep because queueing mail causes more problems than it solves…
  • Queueing mail has a domino effect that causes problems for other ISPs, and also means delays in mail reaching end users, which means another increase in help-center tickets.
  • Along with all this, people get new technological toys over Christmas and want to get them online…
  • … all of which means that help-centers are flooded.
  • Help-center overload means tickets are not resolved in a timely fashion, which means that…ISP customers get angry, which is at minumum bad PR – folks complain on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, to their friends on the phone – and at worst means losing a customer (and possibly his friends!).
  • Changing how the spam systems work means that production code changes get stress tested real-time, which over the holidays with lots of staff on vacation is unlikely to have a good outcome.
  • ISP admins are people too. They want to have a nice holiday, eat a lot and drink more, and to relax and spend time with their loved ones just like everyone else. A relaxed holiday is a pipe-dream for most admins anyway, and making live changes to existing systems makes it even more unlikely to happen!

This is one big ugly stressball for ISP staff, who are thin on the ground and over-worked to begin with. I cannot imagine a scenario in which significant changes would be made to production anti-spam systems except in the case of dire emergency.

The perception that ISPs are deliberately throttling email or tightening things down over the holidays is entirely due to changes in the inbound mail stream – differences created by marketers who change their own behavior during the holidays. Anti-spam and reputation systems react to sudden spikes in volume, invalid users, and spam complaints, which are caused by the sender’s decisions to send to older segments, send more frequently, send across channels, send to purchased or rented lists. These are all things that many marketers typically do over the holidays. This spiky behavior is seen as outside the norm and treated accordingly – and rightly so! There is nothing unusual about this at all.

So…as I said in my previous post, the best thing marketers can do during the holidays is to follow best practices, to not make significant changes to their email programs that would result in additional poorly targeted mail being sent out, to treat their clients with the same respect they wish to get from companies they buy from themselves, and to be patient with the ISPs, who are doing the very best they can with ever-more-limited resources.

“Do unto others as you would wish they do unto you” is a very applicable idea, as well as “less is more”. Respect the email eco-system, keep the big picture in mind and it will pay off!

What is “Being Informed”?

This isn’t about spam. It isn’t even really about permission, but more about a tangential issue surrounding the thorny dilemma of how to usefully inform the largest number of people of a product change while simultaneously not pissing off any appreciable fraction of your user-base. The bigger the user-base, the bigger the problem. I recently had an interaction with Facebook, which has a staggeringly huge user-base, that got me thinking about this issue.

There is a new feature that Facebook has enabled that filters your news feed based on whether or not you have recently interacted with one of your “friends”. This was a complete surprise to me, and explains some stuff that had been puzzling me about my Facebook news-feed lately. I objected, on my FB Wall, saying that I would have expected to have been informed of such a change. FB replied that the change was widely requested, had been publicized on team and product pages, and that is it documented in the Help pages. He posed the question: “Where would you have looked for it, or how would you have wanted to be told this sort of thing?”

Well, ok. I thought this over for a while, and came up with the following: To me, being informed of a major product or privacy policy change means that the information is pushed to me, and I should not have to go looking for explanations of updates for big-impact changes. To answer his specific question: in this particular situation, I feel that a message to my Facebook inbox from Facebook Development staff would have been appropriate, or else one of those floating boxes at the top of my feed that they’ve previously used to announce other changes. I would not have “gone looking” for anything at all, because I didn’t have a concrete problem that would have provoked me into searching for a solution. I just thought that my friends weren’t posting much, or that my posts were more than usually boring, so no-one was replying to me.

A counter-example would be when Facebook rolled out the new Profile look. There was a notice at the top of my feed, announcing the change and inviting me to take a tour of the new features. If I remember correctly, there was even the option to roll it back to the older Profile look if you didn’t like the new one.

My bank recently rolled out some major new feature. Rather than relying on email to get the message out, what they chose to do was to have a temporary screen inserted between my log-in and accounts, with a brief description of the new offering, and the option to click a link to learn more, or to decline and move on to my account overview. If I declined, it told me that I could opt-in to using it in future if I wished, and told me where to look to enable the feature should I change my mind.

Each approach is different and yields a different user “experience”.

End users are tricky and capricious creatures that are increasingly burned out. What about y’all? How would you define “being informed” in this sort of context? What approach(es) to informing you, as a user, would make you feel up-to-date and happy?

AOL MX record vanishes for 3 hours

I woke up this morning, EU time, to hear “AOL’s MX record is missing!”. I shot awake and poked around and yes, sure enough it was in fact missing. After some backing and forthing with the AOL NOC, and some undeserving folks getting bounced out of bed at 5AM, it’s back and functional. So if y’all have clients wondering why they had a rash of weird bounces from AOL, that’s why.

I know I’m going to be explaining this several dozen times today to my own clients… – quel surprise!

I’ve been a sort of unwilling member of for a long, long time. I don’t really remember why I signed up, but I did, getting the “free” version of the site. They spent many years trying to convince me to upgrade, using various methods and tricks which have been widely reported and complained about, though that hasn’t appeared to make them change their minds. I especially loved the “your classmates are looking for you!” ones, since I hated just about everyone in high school and they hated me right back, so that they would be looking for me is unlikely in the extreme. (and the ones that didn’t hate found me on….yup, Facebook). I’ve ignored the deluge of Classmates mail for years, marking it as spam when I remembered to.

Today something tripped my trigger and I decided I wanted off their mailing list. It’s of zero value to me, so I looked at their email to see how to unsubscribe. I was pleased to find a removal link at the bottom of the page. Okay, great!


UH OH! Looky here!

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What’s wrong with this picture? A CAN-SPAM violation, you say? You’d be right. A glaring one, that puts them in direct violation of Federal law. You’d think a company that has had a class action suit for fraud filed against them (which they settled to the tune of 9.2 million dollars but… did not admit any wrongdoing) would be interested in not pissing off the Feds.

I note with interest that they have changed mailing methods since the last time I had a reason to look at them. They used to use Verizon Business but for whatever reason (I don’t know the reason for sure, but I can speculate, and I am, I am!) are now doing their own mailings, using IPs leased from Level 3.

Since I don’t know the password, I cannot unsubscribe, so I guess I will just continue to mark their mail as spam, and perhaps see if I can find my buddy at L3 and see if he can talk some sense to them.

Grmph. Some days I wish I could still whack spammers when I am grumpy.